A Journey To Appreciating Female Athletes, Through The Eyes Of A Female Sports Journalist
Michigan State journalism major Maisy Nielsen looks at how her perceptions of female athletes have changed, now that she has a clearer look at sports.
Growing up, I always knew female athletes existed, but I didn’t appreciate them to the same extent as male athletes. I played basketball and volleyball as a kid, but not in high school, which is why I didn’t understand the amount of work female athletes have to put in to compete with their male counterparts.
I grew up a Spartans fan, but had very little interest outside of who won the annual Michigan-Michigan State football game. During high school, I became interested in football and basketball spending all of my free time, watching or thinking about sports.
I went to Spartan football games frequently and watched Tom Izzo’s squad on TV with my dad, never thinking of the athletes outside of the gridiron or the hard court.
By my senior year, I had a majority of the football roster memorized - just hearing a jersey number, I could tell you the player, his position and basic stats.
Football and men’s basketball had become the foundation of my love for sports. If only I knew how much I was missing by not paying attention to women’s teams.
The journey begins
I got my first journalism job/experience during my freshman year at Michigan State. I was on the State News’ city desk as an intern, dreaming of covering any sporting event. When it was time to apply for a position on the sports desk, I had three options; men’s basketball, hockey and women’s basketball.
Yes, covering Izzo’s squad was the dream for anyone who followed college basketball, but I knew my chances as an inexperienced freshman reporter still learning basic journalism skills, that getting the men’s beat was not likely. I barely knew the basic rules of hockey, so hockey was out. The women’s basketball beat would allow me to develop my style and cover a sport I knew.
I didn’t know much about Suzy Merchant’s squad, but I loved the game and figured, ‘Why not get paid to sit courtside at the Breslin Center and write about basketball.’
My first game as the beat writer was the Dec. 30, 2018 matchup against No. 16 Iowa. The game was over winter break, so my parents and I traveled the hour and a half to East Lansing for my career milestone.
I found my seat along press row and like everything new, I nervously waited for the tip. From the start I was drawn in; the game I loved was played ten feet away from me and I could hear and see everything the players and coaches did.
No the women couldn’t dunk, but the game was a thriller, as each team exchanged runs for droughts behind their best scorers.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Spartans had upset the Hawkeyes, 84-70, despite Iowa’s senior center (and future WNBA draftee) Megan Gustafson finishing with a 30 points and 14 rebounds double-double. The Spartan’s freshman guard Nia Clouden scored a career high 27 points in front of the alumni-day crowd at the Breslin Center.
I had a newfound appreciation for women’s basketball, and I was hooked. Not only did I get to watch great basketball several days a week, but I got to enjoy the beginning of my journalism career. I got a courtside seat and access to the post-game press conference without the same level of formality and competition to ask questions as the men’s beat writers.
Women’s basketball gained a new fan that cold December afternoon. These women were some of the best athletes on campus and yet they didn’t (and still don’t) get the recognition they should. They faced the same pain of playing through an injury as the men did, despite the difference in style.
Style of the game
Women’s basketball is played in a completely different style than men’s, but it was just as exciting, and sometimes even more competitive than most of the blow-out games in some of the men’s matchups. Very few college women athletes can dunk (or even get close to touching the rim) so women had to find new ways to put the ball in the 10-foot basketball hoop. Whether it was from behind the three-point line or a left-handed layup against a six-foot-three defender, the women found a way to score.
The excitement was there every time a double-digit lead disappeared in two minutes behind a balanced attack or a key player picked up their fifth foul late in the game. Gender aside, these are things basketball fans wait for all year to shout at their TVs or in the arena and I got to experience it watching athletes most didn’t recognize.
From this point on, nothing would stop me from rooting for the underdog female athletes in a male dominated sphere.
The 2021 season
This past season I followed Big Ten basketball religiously. It was my way to escape the chaotic pandemic world.
My time as a beat reporter exposed me to the then talented underclassmen, who by 2021 had developed into all-conference players; Naz Hillmon for Michigan, Ohio State’s Dorka Juhasz and Lindsey Pulliam of Northwestern. I felt a sense of nostalgia every time I watched the women take the court, reminding me of my time covering my first sports beat.
As a devoted basketball fan, it didn’t matter if Michigan State wasn’t playing, I was just excited to watch any Big Ten basketball.
Like most fans watching the COVID season unfold on TV, I was introduced to Iowa’s freshman guard Caitlin Clark and the seemingly unstoppable Maryland Terrapins, loaded with star-studded transfer portal talent and the scrappy Indiana Hoosiers led by junior guard Grace Berger and sophomore forward Mackenzie Holmes.
My Twitter feed began to flood itself with Big Ten women’s basketball content. I retweeted news every time Clark had a phenomenal game, despite living over 400 miles away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Every time the Terps scored 100+ points behind their dynamic eight-women roster, I shared the probability of Maryland winning the conference title and Big Ten tournament. (which they did) I even tweeted out my disbelief as Hillmon scored a school record 50 points against Ohio State in the Buckeyes’ Jan 21, 81-77 victory.
Big Ten women’s basketball had cemented itself into my heart, competing for my attention over most men’s games.
I will forever remember my time as a women’s beat writer because it provided me with an entirely different love for basketball. My appreciation for an athlete’s dedication and hard work has transcended the traditional gender norms.
As a reporter, I didn’t want the glory as a men’s reporter, I wanted to become a better journalist and enjoy what I was covering. It just so happens women’s basketball did it for me. The women’s basketball beat was one of the best things to happen for my career and my personal life.
Take it from me, provide female athletes with the respect they deserve from the beginning.
Female athletes are still athletes whether the world decides to acknowledge them or not. Their worst days are better than your best and sadly I was oblivious to female athlete’s feats for the first 18 years of my life.
As a true believer that everything happens for a reason, my journey of recognizing and appreciating female athletes occurred at the best possible moment in my life, but I wish I learned to appreciate them earlier.